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Greetings from Vacationland! I spent this past week in lovely Beach Haven, New Jersey. Beach Haven was a place to explore the definition of Vacationland, an idea I’ve been playing with since I visited the Florida Panhandle this summer. Vacationland, loosely defined, is an area or region directed wholly towards tourism, typically seasonal tourism. Geographically, Vacationland starts in New England (in Maine, perhaps?), hugs Cape Cod, extends south along Long Island, stretches along the Jersey Shore, then follows the Intracoastal Waterway down the East Coast, through the Outer Banks, around Florida, and along the Gulf coast into  Texas. 

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Vacationland relies on seasonal tourism, filling up with vacationeers during warm months and emptying out empty during cold months. (The contrast between the high and low seasons is starkest in colder climes.) It is characterized by medium- to long-term tourism, with vacationeers lasting from a single weekend to two weeks or more. Vacationland is typically within driving distance of the primary residences of its users, the vacationeers; the drive may take up to a day but does not typically require an overnight stay en route. The primary housing stock in Vacationland is single-family residences, organized into towns or into newer suburban-style developments. These houses’ owners usually live elsewhere and maintain the house as a vacation rental with the help of local real estate companies. In many cases, Vacationland will have grown up around existing settlements, repurposing them to serve as hosts. This is Vacationland: An entire realm that exists in support of leisure.

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Setting aside specific geographic areas for leisure activities is not a new idea in the American consciousness. Vacationland can be traced back at least to the rise of railroads and how they enabled easy and quick transportation between disparate points. Beaches were a natural summer vacation destination because they (a) tended to be cooler than urban environments, especially before the invention of air conditioning, and (b) were close to major centers of population. Buried in all of the Vacationlands is, I think, a Dolores Hayden-style theory on the growth and stages of leisure-directed land-use. Beach Haven is an older Vacationland; the Jersey Shore has been a Vacationland since the early 20th century. Other Vacationlands I have visited, including the Outer Banks and the Florida Panhandle, are newer.

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Regardless of age or origin, different Vacationlands share architectural motifs. The architecture, both residential and commercial, tends toward a strong coastal or nautical flavor, emphasizing shingles, widows’ walks, portholes, screened porches, balconies, etc. Older houses tended to naturally build these elements in, whether to accomodate the local climate (screened porches) or because their builders were the sea-going sort (widows’ walks). Newer houses ape this style, exaggerating it and stretching it in funny ways, distorting it and ballooning it, emphasizing the certain features that “read” as nautical. What’s interesting about newer vacation architecture is not that it tries to look nautical, but that it all tends to look the same, regardless of where you are. It’s as though there are certain rules and codes built into the built environment of Vacationland, reminding its users that they are on vacation, and nowhere else.

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From the architecture and purpose of Vacationland, a tautology emerges: These areas look like places to vacation because that’s what they are; these areas are places to vacation, so that’s what they look like. Bound up in Vacationland are ideas about autonomy, leisure, individuality, home ownership, property, common access to public goods, responsibility. The ideals of Vacationland—a family vacation, a good time—are bound up in the architecture, creating a tangible discourse about what is or is not an acceptable use of the place. The Right Story. But there is also our old friend, The Wrong Story. Vacationland is a peripheral space, a borderland. It encourages activities that are deemed inappropriate for non-Vacationland, such as walking around half-naked or drinking beer through the afternoon and into the evening. To what extent do these messages of acceptability lie latent in the architecture?

Beyond these narratives about Vacationland’s vacationeers are stories hidden, lying latent, describing the lives of the people who live in Vacationland full-time. These people may work in support industries, staffing the stores, the banks, the construction firms; they may live off-peak, traveling during the high season and returning to live during the low. Regardless of what they do or how they interact with Vacationland, they are always locals in a world meant for tourists. Townies in a town meant for outsiders. What are the tensions, the underlying issues there? Vacationland is interesting because much of its structure doesn’t neatly square with traditional American political ideas about local government or representation, which assume a fixed, stable population. Who votes in Vacationland? Who serves on committees? Who holds bake sales? 

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Contemporary Vacationland architecture leaps beyond exaptation of existing styles and into a fully-fledged style of its own. There is a McMansion-esque aspect to it—the faux-Italiante style, the emphasis on the trendy, the size, the height. Part is internally driven: The twelve people staying here for the week all want their own bathroom; changing ideas about how domestic space should or can be shared has increased the internal infrastructure of a house. Advances in cooking and entertainment technology have meant that those spaces need to be upgraded. How closely do changes in Vacationland track with changes in primary-residential architecture? When is it no longer acceptable that one’s vacation cottage lacks a flat-screen TV or an eight-burner range? And part is externally driven: The styling is ornamentation on a domestic envelope, to make the house “fit in,” however poorly. Again the self-justification: If all Vacationland architecture is nautical, this will be too.

But there’s something deeper and more interesting about contemporary Vacationland architecture in how it relates to primary-residence architecture. Ideas about acceptable luxury and the places where such is appropriate may have exaggerated the disconnect between vacation and primary-residence architecture. This disconnect is relatively small in older Vacationlands, like Beach Haven, where many early (c.1930) houses weren’t so different from their primary-residence counterparts in style—maybe smaller, a little cheaper. But in newer Vacationlands—and here I’m thinking of the Florida Panhandle—people rent houses that they would never, ever live in. Elaborate three-storied bright-blue-shingled confections, with open kitchens and huge porches and boardwalks connecting them to the beach. Does Vacationland offer us a place to play with ideas about appropriate domesticity? Has it morphed from following trends in domestic architecture to setting them?

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As these transformations continue, what becomes of Vacationlands past? Areas rich in potential profit are notoriously difficult to preserve; when everyone wants a nicer house, who has to keep living in an “outdated” vacation cottage? What will the future bring? Preservation is made more difficult by a constituency of absentee owners, all of whom want to stay at the bleeding edge of Vacationland technology. This discussion is dangerous in many Vacationlands, because the very popularity of the place threatens to destroy it. Vacationland must balance change with preservation, future with past, in a way perhaps more immediate than the balancing required by many American communities.

Up next: The commercial architecture of Vacationland.

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